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Proposed law takes aim at metal theft

By Rosalyn Retkwa

In early August, New York Senator Chuck Schumer said he would be the Senate co-sponsor on a new prospective law on metal theft.   

“It is time to put thieves who steal scrap metal from homes, schools, infrastructure, and even vets’ graves behind ironclad bars,” Schumer said.

Schumer made this announcement during a press conference in Syracuse, N.Y., a city that saw a 50% increase in metal theft year over year through October. Based on recent events, Schumer suggested, “…it could continue to rise at an alarming pace.”

In May, thieves stole a 260-pound block of steel worth $3,000 from a bridge repair project, causing a two-week delay and in June thieves stole the metal fencing that surrounded a public football field, a crime that cost the parks department thousands of dollars, according to Schumer. But perhaps most alarming, 24 electrical substations in Onondaga County were targeted by copper thieves last year. In one of those episodes last October, thieves got away with $800 worth of metal from two substations, but did $10,000 worth of damage, Schumer said. In another incident, 175 pieces of equipment worth $24,000 were stolen from a different substation.

Copper theft is not new, but what is new is that the thieves are showing an “increasingly blatant disregard for public safety,” says Danielle Waterfield, assistant counsel and director of government relations at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI).

That has led to an increasing level of public outrage over the damage thieves are causing. Metal thieves are willing to steal just about anything these days, Waterfield explained. Schumer noted the theft of flagpole holders from the graves of veterans. In Illinois last November, a three-foot-long copper sword from Abraham Lincoln’s Tomb in Springfield was stolen. Though the sword was recovered, a new copper theft law will go into effect in Illinois at the end of this year.

Schumer’s involvement is new, but the effort to get a bill through Congress goes back to 2008, when Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota sponsored the first bill. Klobuchar will again be the main sponsor of the bill in the Senate.

The big difference this time is that Schumer is promising to make the theft of metals like copper and steel from what he described as “critical infrastructure,” including schools and roads, a federal crime, says Mark Reiter, the ISRI’s assistant vice president for government affairs in Washington, D.C. That actually makes ISRI very happy because it believes the solution to the problem lies in stiffer penalties for the thieves versus greater requirements and restrictions on scrap dealers, he says.

“The thought was that if you came down hard on the people who buy the material, then somehow or other, the thief would go away,” says Reiter. “We’ve constantly said, ‘You need to target the thief.’”

There’s no shortage of laws at the state level, and more are being passed every year, says Waterfield. Alaska and North Dakota are the only two states that don’t have laws that require scrap dealers to keep records on transactions, though North Dakota is starting to experience problems because of its construction boom, and might join the list.

There was a dramatic increase in legislation at the state level in 2007 and 2008, when the commodity prices for copper and incidences of copper theft both rose. Today there are several state laws on the books. Some are obvious – for instance, making a copy of the seller’s driver’s license, or recording the seller’s license plate number. Some states require scrap dealers to take a photo of the seller and/or of the material being sold, or even a video. In nine states, scrap dealers are required to take fingerprints, while in three others, fingerprints are sometimes required, if other forms of ID aren’t present.  

Schumer says that this new bill, which hasn’t been introduced yet, will require documentation that those selling metal to recyclers own the metal or are authorized to sell it, require recyclers to keep detailed records for purchases of metal and cap the amount at $100 in cash that recyclers can pay for scrap metal, with anything more paid via check to create a paper trail. Recyclers are already used to those kinds of requirements at the state level, Reiter said. “They’re okay with that. They recognize it’s their responsibility to try to help catch the thief.”

ISRI has an online service called ScrapTheftAlert.com, where anyone can enter an alert that will be sent out to every registered scrap dealer within a 100-mile radius. Waterfield says dealers sometimes have problems with getting the police to respond because the penalties just aren’t that great.

ISRI believes the solution is to change the level of penalty. “The industry has supported changes in several states that will impose felony-level penalties based upon the damage they leave behind so there will be an incentive for prosecutors to actually take the cases, instead of giving them a slap on the wrist and letting them back out on the streets,” Waterfield said. 

For instance, under Mississippi law, “Any person found guilty of stealing metal property or receiving metal property, shall be ordered to make full restitution to the victim, including, without limitation, restitution for property damage that resulted from the theft of the property.” In North Carolina, under a new law, the police can confiscate the thief’s vehicle, if it was being used to transport stolen metal—a concept that’s already in wide use with drug dealers.

Laws in Georgia and Florida state that knowingly and intentionally receiving stolen metal is a felony—a useful tool when it comes to going after so-called “pop-up shops.” Thieves will literally set up shop on a street corner, with a truck or a trailer, and a sign saying they buy scrap, Waterfield explained. “But there’s a lack of resources for law enforcement to go out and shut them down.”

Reiter cited another problem. Because some states have tougher laws on record-keeping than others, he said ISRI has noticed a trend where thieves will steal metal in one state, and then take it across the border to a state with more lenient record-keeping. In fact, states with the less lenient record-keeping requirements have a large number of scrap yards right near their borders.

ISRI is lobbying for this newest bill to include federal pre-emption on record-keeping so the requirements are the same in all of the states. The last bill specifically stated that the proposed law would not pre-empt state record-keeping requirements.

“We have this crazy quilt of different laws all over the place, and it’s not working to solve the problem,” Reiter said. “If all the states were enforcing the same law, we wouldn’t get thieves shopping the states with the more lenient laws, which is what we know happens now.”

Congress is out of session right now, and no one was available at either Senator Schumer’s or Senator Klobuchar’s offices to discuss the points being raised by ISRI. But Reiter says that Senator Klobuchar knows the organization’s position.

Rosalyn Retkwa is freelance writer based in New York City who specializes in business and finance.

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